In a year of lengthy scripts in dialogue-heavy cRPGs voiced by expensive, famous voice casts, it's the game that does more with less that wins out. While Borderlands' voice acting might be considered satisfactory but not outstanding, the sound design as a whole beats out any other role-playing game we played last year.
Where the game really excels is the music. Video game music as an art has been really up and down over the past few years, and Borderlands is a showcase of how it's done. The atmospheric music setting the arid world's tone is excellent, yet it readily switches to appropriate combat music that pumps you up without getting annoyingly intrusive.
Returning to the more dialogue-heavy cRPGs, Risen stood out this year as having the best overall performance in its voice acting cast. Risen's soundtrack is solid, its sound effects are more than adequate, but it's the voice acting that serves as a masterclass.
Andy Serkis and John Rhys-Davies give subtle tour-de-force performances that help underpin Risen's excellent character writing. Piranha Bytes and Deep Silver were dedicated to getting this game's international release right, and it shows. The high quality of the cast lacking in billable names could serve as a lesson to publishers that tend to rely more on less competent Hollywood talent.
The Lord of the Rings Online: Siege of Mirkwood (Winner)
In a year filled with bite-sized and arguably overpriced DLC, Turbine's Siege of Mirkwood expansion pack for The Lord of the Rings Online stands out as a shining example of how to bring fresh content to an already content-rich game. Though it doesn't provide us with any new classes to pick from, it progresses the War of the Ring storyline within the game while also introducing us to several new areas (including the Ringwraith fortress of Dol Guldur), a unique and highly entertaining skirmish system, an extended level cap, and many fan-requested gameplay enhancements.
The skirmish system is probably the most notable of these additions, as it provides an alternative (and scalable) way to level your character, earn new loot, and experience some of the great battles of Middle-earth. It also brings something very unique to the table - the ability to have a henchman-like soldier fighting at your side, who in turn can gain new abilities and traits as you tackle the skirmishes. There was already a lot to like in The Lord of the Rings Online, but getting to experience the Stand at Amon Sûl, the Siege of Gondamon, and other such epic battles with a group of friends has to be the biggest boon to the game yet.
Fallout 3: Broken Steel (Runner-up)
Despite a few DLC launch quirks, throughout 2009 Bethesda Softworks demonstrated that they can deliver quality post-release downloadable content. And of the five Fallout 3 addons released last year, Broken Steel is the one that had the most ambition behind it.
In addition to raising the level cap and introducing new perks and equipment to the game, Broken Steel addresses a major concern that many players had - there was no way to keep playing the game after turning on the purifier at the Jefferson Memorial. Such an alteration probably shouldn't have been necessary in the first place, but it's refreshing to see a company willing to deliver on what the majority of the (vocal) community was asking for.
At a $10 price point, Broken Steel is easily one of the better game additions to reach our hard drives last year.